I’ve Been in a Car Accident… Why Can’t I Get Over It?

Car accidents are common... According to this article, most people experience 3 to 4 car accidents in their lifetimes, that’s every 17.9 years, if you are an average driver, which, by definition, most people are. Most of the time, these accidents are not serious, and definitely not fatal, and most of the time, people move on without a problem. They get their car fixed and get back on the road. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Months, or even years, after the accident, some people find that they are still haunted by the event. Even if the accident was not “objectively” serious, if it was frightening enough that the person affected thought that they were going to die or be seriously injured, it can have lasting effects. 

The Body Remembers

One of the most typical things that I see in people who have been affected by car accidents is extreme physiological reactivity when driving or as a passenger in a car. So, what is extreme physiological reactivity? Basically, when you meet up with one of the triggers of a trauma, like a car accident, you find your pulse quickening, breath getting more shallow, sweating, muscles tensing, basically feeling like you need to get out of the situation and fast.

Sometimes this kind of physiological reaction is accompanied by memories of the accident. These memories can be so vivid, you might feel like the accident is happening all over again. You may even feel similar sensations to what you felt your body when it happened. For example, if you are in a car and someone is coming up behind you fast on the highway, you might feel the same pain in your back you felt after the accident. 

Insomnia and Nightmares

Sleep is another aspect of your health that can be affected after a car accident. Sometimes this takes the form of nightmares. Understandably, having regular nightmares makes a person not want to sleep, so insomnia can result from this. Even when nightmares are not an issue, a car accident can set off a feeling of always needing to “on guard,” which makes it very hard to get to sleep.

Driving (and Passenger) Anxiety

Avoidance is another way that trauma affects a person. When someone has been in a car accidents, many times people find their driving changes. This often takes the form of restrictions in driving, such as refusing to drive on highways or busy streets, not driving during rush hour, not driving in the dark, not driving with a passenger, not driving without a passenger, not driving the same kind of car they were driving when they got in the accident, not driving past where it happened, not driving in snow or in rain, or any combination of these. 

Another form of avoidance related to car accident trauma has to do with “safety behaviors.” Safety behaviors are things that people do to avoid anxiety related to a perceived threat. For example, a person who was rear-ended might constantly be looking in the rear-view mirror. Some people drive significantly slower than they used to, much to the ire of other drivers on the road. Sometimes these behaviors that are intended to increase safety actually make it worse — like if you refuse to go through an intersection when other cars are waiting, even if it is your turn to go.

Irritability and Rage

Finally, it’s not unusual to find yourself feeling more irritable, or even having fits of rage that seem to come out of nowhere. This can happen after a frightening event because the body never quite releases from that feeling of needing to be in fight-or-flight mode after the accident. In this situation, when small stressors come up they feel a lot bigger and cause bigger reactions than they otherwise would. This is really upsetting because these reactions can cause people to lash out against loved ones and act in ways they can’t understand.

Not everyone who experiences a car accident has these type of problems, but if you do, know that psychotherapy can help you overcome these issues. Give me a call or schedule an appointment today to find out more about how you can get back to your old self.


Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist who offers counseling for adults with PTSD, trauma symptoms, and chronic pain in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also works with individuals via remote, online counseling throughout the state of Minnesota. You can schedule an appointment and learn more about Erin’s Twin Cities therapy practice at erinbdlicsw.com, or reach Erin by phone at 651-998-8991.